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November 03rd 2012 print

Michael Kile

Quakes, consensus and consequence

The recent convictions of seven earth scientists for involuntary manslaughter raised a storm of protest. A closer look at the case provides a sobering lesson for experts who present opinions as established fact. Climate alarmists, please take note


On Sunday April 5, 2009, five days before Good Friday, the inhabitants of L’Aquila (“The Eagle”, population about 70,000) in central Italy’s Apennine Mountains, felt two tremors. The first struck just before 11pm local time. It measured 3.9 on the magnitude scale, the second 3.5. Strong enough to loosen some objects, but unlikely to wake you up.


Nevertheless, there was a lot of anxiety. A low-level quake swarm had occurred the previous week – eight tremors of at least magnitude 3. A major quake, magnitude 6.3, hit central Italy about four hours later, at 3.32am local time. More than 300 residents were killed, 1,500 injured, 65,000 homeless, with damage estimated at about 15 billion dollars.

L’Aquila has a shaky history. An earthquake damaged its San Francesco Church in late 1315. Others struck in 1349 (January 22, 800 fatalities), 1452, 1461, 1501, 1646, 1703 (February 3, 3,000 fatalities), 1706 and 1786 (July 31, 6,000 fatalities).

There was a period of quiescence for almost two centuries, until a magnitude 5 quake struck on June 26, 1958. The 2009 quake was seventy-five times stronger than this one, and 3,000 times more powerful than April 5′s tremors.

Three years later, on Monday, October 22, seven members of Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (NCFPMR) were given six-year jail sentences after a two-year trial, banned from holding public office and forced to pay court costs and damages.

The L’Aquila Seven were: Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission; Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology; Giulio Lorenzo Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre; Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering; Claudio Eva, physicist; Mauro Dolce, director of the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office; Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department.

The prosecution argued they had spread "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" statements about the early tremors. They were also criticised for being "falsely reassuring". Boschi had said a major earthquake was "unlikely", but did not entirely exclude this possibility, while De Bernardinis stated publicly there was "no danger".

Scientific opinion was tabled arguing the early tremors were typical of seismic activity before major convulsions. Yet the defendants classified them as a "normal geological phenomenon”. More damning was Judge Marco Billi’s conclusion: their risk assessment "was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken".

"I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand it”, said a stunned Boschi. Co-defendant Claudio Eva described it as, "a very Italian and medieval decision." (The case will not be decided until heard by an appellate court.)

Shock about the judgment echoed around the world, just as it had done when the trial began. Was this Italian justice, Galileo-style? Many felt – and still feel – science itself is on trial (again).

In 2010, more than 4,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. They called the allegations “unfounded,” as there was no way NCFPMR could predict an earthquake. Others found the indictments “unfair and naïve”.

Malcolm Sperrin, a British scientist, reportedly said: "If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only, and the benefits that are associated with findings, from medicine to physics, will be stalled.”

The L’Aquila Seven, however, were not charged with failing to predict the earthquake, but with conducting a superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete and falsely reassuring findings to the public (author’s italics).

Brian Kennett, ANU Professor of Seismology, Earth Physics, felt “the Italian group may have been too reassuring”. Whatever the outcome, the judgement “will have a major inhibitory effect on any group worldwide making pronouncements about future risk.”

Wayne Peck, senior seismologist, Seismology Research Centre at Environmental Systems and Services concurred: “To err in one direction leaves one open to being charged with being ‘too reassuring’, but to err in the other leaves them open to being accused of being alarmist. Either way, minor nuances in the language used can be interpreted differently by different audiences, leaving the experts in a no-win situation."

Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, called it a “bizarre verdict [that] will chill anyone who gives scientific advice. I hope they are freed on appeal.” The lesson, he continued, "is that scientific advisers must try and retain control over how their work is communicated, and are properly trained to engage with the public.”

Prof Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at the University College London, said the verdict was extremely alarming: “If this sets a precedent then national governments will find it impossible to persuade any scientist to sit on a natural-hazard risk-evaluation panel. In the longer term, then, this decision will cost lives, not save them.”

On the other hand, one prominent Australian climate sceptic suggested “a few Italian judges” could “sort out our climate alarmists who predicted permanent droughts, empty dams, more hurricanes and dangerous sea-level rises.”

In L’Aquila, however, the trial was more about the failure of a government-appointed committee to adequately evaluate and communicate the potential risks. When charges were laid in June, 2010, by public prosecutor Fabio Picuti, some described it as an attempt to scapegoat the country’s most respected geophysicists.

"I know they can’t predict earthquakes,” said Picuti. “The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila."

“Either they didn’t know certain things, and that is a problem," Picuri added, “or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”

What of the judgment’s context? Applying Sherlock Holmes’ axiom – “the little things are infinitely the most important” – reveals some interesting facts, and fictions. With his obsession with coincidences, causal chains and chicanery, two intriguing events – one involving Giampaolo Giuliani, aka Radon Man, the other, a toad colony (see Lesson 9 below) – would not have escaped Conan Doyle’s master sleuth. Both apparently exhibited pre-seismic anticipatory behaviour near Ovid’s home-town, Sulmona (population 25,000), a mountain pass away from L’Aquila, just before the quake.

Giuliani worked for 40 years as a laboratory technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, including 20 years at the nearby Gran Sasso National Laboratory until his retirement in 2010. He believes radon gas emissions fluctuate significantly in the day or so before an earthquake. Despite huge scepticism in the scientific establishment about the method’s reliability as a short-term predictor, he installed four home-made radon detectors throughout the region.

Radon Man’s provincial experiment had dramatic consequences: it triggered a sequence of events that ultimately led to the trial.

Giuliani claimed to have detected unusually high radon levels in the area. Believing them to signal an impending earthquake, he gave Sulmona’s mayor his (unofficial) prediction: one would strike on the afternoon of March 29. The mayor duly ordered vans carrying loudspeakers to drive through the town and warn residents.

No earthquake hit Sulmona on the nominated date. The following day, national civil-protection officials cited Radon Man for procurato allarme – instigating public alarm under Codice penale italiano Art. 658 – Procurato allarme presso l’Autorità. He was forbidden from making further public (and online) pronouncements.

After the April, 2009, quake, which came less than a week later, he became “something of a savant and a martyr” in the Italian tabloids, an amateur who had trumped the scientific establishment. The Guardian described him as "The Man Who Predicted An Earthquake". Marcello Melandri, Boschi’s lawyer, however, had a different take. Giuliani had been terrifying local residents with nonsense.

Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection (DCP), "was very worried” about the Sulmona panic spreading to L’Aquila. On March 31, six days before the deadly earthquake, De Bernardinis, DCP’s deputy chief, and the six scientists – all members of its Major Risks Committee – scheduled an official meeting and media conference in the town.

A recorded telephone conversation made public halfway through the trial suggested the session was convened with the explicit aim of reassuring the public about short-term earthquake risk. Were the scientists used—or did they knowingly allow themselves to be used—in a DCP attempt to calm the population?

The media conference, unfortunately, downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. De Bernardinis claimed recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: "[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation,” he said, “that is to say a continuous discharge of energy."  

When asked directly if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis replied: "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc [Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Denominazione di origine controllata]. This seems important."

As part of the prosecution’s case, Picuti argued fateful decisions made by local residents on the night of the earthquake were influenced by these statements.

"You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town," said Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer representing some families of eight University of L’Aquila students who died when a dormitory collapsed. "It was repeated almost like a mantra: ‘the more tremors, the less danger.’ That phrase," in the opinion of one L’Aquila resident, "was deadly for a lot of people here."

According to Stephen Hall’s account at Nature’s online site, many people “viewed the meeting as essentially a public-relations event, [ironically] held to discredit the idea of reliable earthquake prediction [and, by implication, Radon Man] thereby reassuring local residents.”

Christian Del Pinto, a DCP seismologist for the neighbouring region of Molise, attended part of the meeting. He later told prosecutors that proceedings were a "grotesque pantomine". Even Boschi now says "the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that until later on."

Yet clearly communicating earthquake risk to the public should not be difficult. The US Geological Survey is emphatic: “Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future. The USGS focuses its efforts on the long-term mitigation of earthquake hazards by helping to improve the safety of structures, rather than by trying to accomplish short-term predictions.”

While most seismologists resist making definitive statements about the location and timing of earthquakes, many are prepared to make probability statements. Mark Quigley, Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology at NZ’s Canterbury University, is one of them.

He recently noted that only six of Italy’s 26 major earthquakes in the past 60 years were preceded by minor fore-shocks. In fact, a medium-size shock in a swarm forecast a major event within several days only about 2% of the time. So had the L’Aquila Seven “issued a specific warning that a major earthquake was coming prior to the event, they would have had a 98% chance of being wrong”.

But, as Quigley added, if it takes “a ton of courage for scientists to speak openly about low-probability scenarios, particularly if these comments are used to accuse them of scare-mongering,” it is unclear how this kind of probabilistic risk assessment will ever “protect” communities.

That said, Nature reported scientists at the one-hour meeting made the following statements: "A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out," and "in recent times some recent earthquakes have been preceded by minor shocks days or weeks beforehand, but on the other hand many seismic swarms did not result in a major event," and also "because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake."

Had the L’Aquila Seven publicly emphasised earthquake unpredictability — had they not communicated, intentionally or inadvertently, such a “reassuring” image of expert authority to anxious citizens — the outcome might have been different for both the defendants and at least some of the victims.

L’Aquila’s Lessons

Lesson 1: An alarmist statement is a prediction.

Lesson 2: A reassuring statement is a prediction.

Lesson 3: An invitation to relax and have a glass of wine during an earthquake swarm is a reassuring statement. (De Bernardinis’s suggestion to have a glass of Montepulciano was, according to one lawyer, “a joke! To have made a joke about a glass of wine and then face a conviction is absurd. It’s something out of the Middle Ages.")

Lesson 4: An invitation to panic (and to de-carbonise your life, civilisation and planet during a climate change scare) is an alarmist statement.

Lesson 5: Chalk is not cheese; speculation is not science.

Lesson 6: When walking under a cascade of uncertainties, carry an umbrella.

Lesson 7: For forecasters of “low-probability events” and complex natural phenomena (earthquakes, climate change, etc), “dirty-weather” catastrophists with a Noah complex, etc, a prediction: “Reality always has the last laugh”.

Lesson 8: For “risk prevention” experts (and government agencies), a mantra: “I (we) don’t know”.

As for the alleged pre-seismic anticipatory behaviour of a reproductively active Common Toad colony 74km from L’Aquila five days before the April 2009 quake; it is – as Sherlock Holmes would have concluded – “a long shot, Watson, a very long shot!”

Lesson 9: For folk in active seismic zones, a tip from the track: “Never bet on anything that talks, trembles, or croaks.”

©Michael Kile,  November 2012